CrossFitters are always talking about how starting CrossFit has changed their lives, changed the way they approach challenges, and changed their own image of what’s important. Once you start CrossFit, it’s likely that you’ll often hear your coach tell you to focus on your performance, not your six pack (or lack thereof). Coaches spend most of their time encouraging members to set ambitious goals and work hard to achieve them. Our sincerest hope is that you take these lessons from CrossFit and apply them to things like your work and family, and improve all aspects of your life. After all, these mental habits aren’t exclusive to CrossFit, and if you’re consistently good at achieving success in the gym, chances are you’re also good at achieving success everywhere else.
It turns out that these positive mental changes aren’t solely a function of the constant barrage of encouragement from your coaches. There may be a biological link between the type of functional movements we perform, and your ability to set and accomplish goals.
When we perform complex movements that require coordination, agility, accuracy, and balance (examples: Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Muscle Ups, Pistols, Wall Balls, etc., etc., etc…) our nervous system actually responds by growing more nerve endings in the muscle itself, and improving the connection between our brain and the muscle. The brain also improves how it controls movement, establishing very precise timing for firing different muscles in sequence in order to make a complex movement look smooth and effort free. This is why high level athletes appear to be putting very little effort into movements that us mere mortals struggle with no matter how much we wiggle, squirm, and try to muscle our way through.
CrossFit has always claimed that functional movements have an evolutionary basis. Our bodies work and move in certain ways that are universal. The ability to move in these ways have been developed by their necessity to our survival. These movements also require activation from our brains, and by training our muscles to move in these complex patterns, our brains are trained to control the movements more precisely.
The part of our brain that controls these complex movements is called the attention association area. More basic movements like tapping a finger or bicep curls are controlled by other areas of the brain because they don’t require the complex nerve firing patterns necessary for functional movement. The attention association area of the brain is also responsible for goal setting and purposeful organization of thoughts. When this part of the brain is injured, we often see a loss of will and inability to form intention (1).
So by performing, practicing, and perfecting things like pullups, thrusters, and all of the other functional movements we do every day, you’re training your brain to make healthier decisions. You’re making it easier to decide to work instead of goof off. You’re making it easier to decide to spend money on things that really matter instead of being wasteful.
When people claim that CrossFit has helped them become better at every aspect of their life, they’re not just blowing smoke, but talking about a biological change that has resulted from them performing complex, functional movements every day. The positive change that happens when you start CrossFit is not exclusive to your fitness level. but every aspect of you life.
(1) Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 35-37